At the end of last season, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was injured, inconsistent and not happy in the least.
When the Panthers’ 6-10 slog was nearly over, Newton said he needed a sabbatical from football, because it wasn’t much fun for him anymore.
But based on the return of his signature first-down signals during games and the joke he made Tuesday at tight end Greg Olsen’s expense, Newton is having fun again.
And why not?
His surgically repaired throwing shoulder is getting stronger each week, he’s completing passes at a career-best pace and – not insignificantly – the Panthers are winning again.
Carolina will take a 4-1 record into its Thursday night matchup with Philadelphia, another division leader with a 4-1 mark.
“I’m just trying to find ways to do anything for this team to win a football game – running, passing, blocking, catching, cheering. It don’t matter,” Newton said.
It’s that passing category that has been impressive of late.
In victories at New England and Detroit the past two weeks, Newton posted a pair of 300-yard passing performances while finishing with passer ratings better than 130 in both games.
Tom Brady is the only other quarterback to notch a 130-plus passer rating in back-to-back games this season.
In addition to his improved shoulder strength, Newton has benefited from a revamped offense that features more short-to-intermediate routes and not as many deep throws.
Through five games, Newton is completing 68.3 percent of his passes, which would shatter his previous best season mark of 61.7 percent from 2013.
Two of the seven best single-game completion percentages of Newton’s career have come the past two weeks against the Patriots (75.9) and the Lions (78.8).
“He’s an MVP-caliber player and he’s just performing like that right now,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “I feel like a big part of that is he’s getting healthy. His arm strength is back and he’s going out and he’s making plays.”
The Panthers’ plan to give Newton a couple of rookie playmakers he could get the ball to quickly seems to be paying off. While second-round pick Curtis Samuel hasn’t been much of a factor yet, first-rounder Christian McCaffrey is the Panthers’ leading receiver with 27 catches for 237 yards and a touchdown.
Most of McCaffrey’s catches have come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. And his arrival has helped Newton complete the “layup” throws that owner Jerry Richardson once told Newton he had to start hitting.
“He’s an exceptional football player (who has) found his role on this team and is trying to find ways to expand his role,” Newton said of McCaffrey. “A guy like that, he’s so easy to throw to.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera added: “You do see (Newton) throwing more to the backs, so I think that helps.”
But Newton wasn’t dinking-and-dunking his way down the field against the Patriots and Lions. He’s been throwing the ball with more velocity and into tight windows.
Newton blistered a 10-yard touchdown strike to Devin Funchess last week in Detroit, then later dropped a 31-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin in a spot where only Benjamin could catch it.
“There’s certain throws that he’s making again. That’s a huge plus,” Rivera said. “I think last week was indicative of that. I think as he gets stronger and stronger, we can do some more things we want to do.”
Like 2015? Don’t tell Newton
Newton is looking like his 2015 MVP form after a miserable 2016 that included a battering physically and statistically. Newton sustained his first known concussion last season, played the final few games with a partially torn rotator cuff and finished with a career-low and NFL-worst 52.9 completion percentage.
Newton brushed off a question about 2015 on Tuesday, saying his sole focus was beating the Eagles.
But left tackle Matt Kalil said he’s seen a different Newton the past two games.
“Coming off surgery, getting back in it, he missed a lot of stuff in the offseason. He just kind of had to find his groove. He’s found his groove and he’s been balling out,” Kalil said. “I think he’s only going to get better throughout the season. He’s the guy we’re all used to seeing. He’s making big plays, making big throws and commanding the huddle.”
What’s also notable about Newton’s two-game tear is that it occurred without Olsen, who has missed the past three games with a broken foot. Ed Dickson, who replaced Olsen, torched the Lions for five catches and 175 yards, which prompted Newton to take a good-natured dig at Olsen.
“In a matter of two days, he done went from a cast to a boot to now his whole shoe off,” Newton said. “But that’s neither here nor there. Anytime we can get a laugh in that locker room with a whole bunch of egos, we’re all for it.”
The laughs and smiles are back for Newton.
So are the bullet passes and – after a yearlong dry spell – the victories.